Book Review – Planes, Peter C. Baker
Peter C. Baker
Alfred A. Knopf, 2022: 256 pp.
This review appeared in the 34th volume of The Briar Cliff Review.
The threads connecting Amira and Ayoub, a newlywed Muslim couple living in Rome, to Melanie and Art, a middle class, middle aged, white couple living in a small town in the American south are improbable ones, but it is the very improbability of their ties that proves the universality of their connection. In his expansive debut novel, Peter C. Baker explores the internal lives and external realities of these two couples who never meet or interact with one another but are joined by deeper truths: those of identity, trauma, and the struggle to maintain a sense of self in the midst of a chaotic world.
Written from four distinct perspectives, the novel begins with Amira, a young Italian woman who converted to Islam when she married Ayoub. When we meet Amira, Ayoub is missing, having been detained and imprisoned without charge whilst on a trip to Pakistan. Amira’s every waking moment is consumed with the anxiety of waiting, of forced paralysis, of wanting an end that she knows may, when it comes, destroy her. Amira’s story highlights the awful weight that small acts take on these liminal spaces. A buzzing phone bearing the name of Ayoub’s attorney sends her into a panic:
The worst news is descending on her at high speed, a bomb dropped from the sky and programmed to seek out her and only her, to smash into her and rip itself apart and rip her apart with it. She’s living now in the moment right before she’s ripped apart.
Baker’s subtle and incisive writing engulfs the reader in Amira’s painfully anxious existence. And just when we feel tempted to put the book down for a moment of respite, he shifts our attention to Bradley, a North Carolina businessman possessed of a delightfully infuriating all-American smugness. It is Bradley who ultimately serves as the uncanny connection between Amira and Ayoub and their North Carolina counterparts; Bradley whose infidelity with Melanie provides the catalyst for a conflict that spreads like a tidal wave from the domestic to the global sphere.
Melanie who, at first blush, seems like a rather bland and bored wife and mother, gets pulled back toward her radical liberal roots when news of rendition flights originating from her small conservative town breaks on a national scale. She and husband Art, newly empty-nesters, step timidly back into their social justice shoes, and, once there, struggle to find the answer to a question they had never openly asked themselves: are we really who we think we are?
Back in Rome, Amira receives the news she’s been waiting for, but it isn’t what she was expecting. After months of secret detention and implicit torture, Ayoub is freed and sent home without apology or explanation. As the couple tries to heal and reconnect, they talk around the edges of the trauma Ayoub has endured, straining to find small pockets of normalcy in their new lives.
‘[W]atching football’ is a script that anyone is free to pick up and follow: you watch, moments arise where it’s appropriate to say something, to agree with or genially dispute what your fellow watchers say, and everyone … knows it ultimately doesn’t matter, which is part of what makes it fun.
These small moments, rendered brilliantly by Baker, accumulate to form a compelling and authentic portrait of two people carrying on because carrying on is the only option. On the other side of the Atlantic, Melanie is forced to carry on as if her life is not imploding, as if she hasn’t abandoned every principle she ever claimed to have for (of all things) an affair with a republican. For Melanie, the campaign of letters, protests, and boycotts has less to do with the human face of illegal detainee transportation – with Ayoub and Amira – and more to do with her own sense of self and identity which has, in recent years, slipped away from her.
Baker is not an author who spells it all out for the reader. He leaves it to us to decide what exactly is churning at the core of the book. Somewhere in the mercifully undissected heart of Planes, we find the two meanings of the word “rendition:” 1. The inherently illegal practice of transporting detained individuals to locales with lax human rights regulations, and 2. A performance of a script. In a very literal sense, rendition is the antagonist in everyone’s story. Ayoub and Amira were violently separated by it; while Melanie and Art gradually drifted apart as their performance of the middle-class American script pulled them in opposite directions. How the couples heal their rifts, how they do or do not carry on, is rendered with the same understated authenticity that we find in Baker’s portrait of an Italian deli in small town North Carolina, or a Somali internet café in the Esquilino neighborhood of Rome. From domestic power struggles to global whistleblowing, every moment in Planes is tender and real, and the whole of the novel leaves the reader feeling run through with the invisible threads that connect us all.